KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Firefighters grappling with the biggest wildfire in Kansas history got a welcomed Easter assist from pre-dawn snowfall over the hardest-hit area, though the looming prospect of flame-fanning winds threatened to undermine the effort.
The National Weather Service said about a half an inch (1.25 centimetres) of precipitation in the form of rain and snow fell early Sunday southwest of Wichita in Barber County, which accounts for 427 of the 620 square miles (1,106 of the 1 ,600 square kilometres) scorched during the blaze that began Tuesday in Oklahoma before spreading into Kansas.
Forestry officials in both states said Sunday the fires had been 45 per cent contained, including roughly one-third of the blaze in Barber County. But shifting, stiffer winds were expected, potentially reigniting hot spots or extending flames beyond the fire line. Around south-central Kansas, winds on Monday could gust to 15 to 25 mph (24 to 40 kph), then increase to 30 to 45 mph (48 to 72 kph) the next day, National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Ketcham said.
“We’re preparing for another couple of critical fire days,” said Hannah Anderson, an Oklahoma Forestry Services spokeswoman.
While crediting the Kansas snowfall for quenching dry, vulnerable prairie grass, native cedar trees abundant around Barber County caught much of that precipitation on their branches and left possible hot spots beneath them parched and at risk of rekindling, Kansas Forest Service spokeswoman Shawna Hartman said. The precipitation also likely offered little fire-suppressing benefit in the area’s drainages and sloping canyons, she said.
Four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the Kansas National Guard remained on the scene Sunday, a day after they arrived equipped with buckets ultimately used to dump nearly 44,880 gallons (169,900 litres) of water onto the flames, the forest service said. Those machines also helped identify any hard-to-reach areas that had reignited.
Six homes have been destroyed and some livestock has been lost, the Kansas Adjutant General’s Office said. Three bridges and one railroad trestle have also been damaged or destroyed. No people have been seriously injured.
A Federal Aviation Administration temporary ban on flights involving aircraft not assisting in the firefight, including unmanned drones, remained in effect above the burn zone at least until sunset Sunday.
Associated Press writer Ken Miller contributed to this report from Oklahoma City.